Hallelujah. In showing Martinez to the nearest exit, the holding company has come a long way, baby — maybe about 60 years in 24 hours?
Its initial reaction was chillingly sexist and straight out of the Sterling Cooper playbook: After JWT’s chief communications officer Erin Johnson’s lawsuit was filed on Feb. 25, she was sent home on leave and hung out to dry. As for Martinez, JWT was quick to circle the wagons once Johnson’s suit went viral, with the CEO aggressively denying the “outrageous claims” and looking forward to his day in court.
Indeed, I hadn’t seen such vintage-style stonewalling since Richard Nixon denied a certain break-in.
And even though the stonewall lasted less than a week (and that changed only because Johnson’s lawyers filed an amendment, a smoking gun, on March 14) it was still a kick in the gut for women.
The message seemed to be “Sexism is alive and well, you will never be heard, so shut your mouths!”
Certainly, none of the professional women I knew could even bear reading past the first page of the 28-page legal brief without wanting to barf. (And, with sinking hearts, immediately knowing that Martinez was guilty as sin.)
That’s because it all felt so sickeningly familiar. Getting into the specific complaints dredged up so much trauma that ad women started flooding my mailbox with their own excruciating harassment stories from the 1980s and 1990s.
But it’s 2016, for God's sake. After Anita Hill, weren’t companies forced to put systems and protocols in place to deal with harassment?
Even by “Mad Men”-era standards, Martinez's actions, as spelled out in the suit, were deplorable. The stories of his “joking” phrases like, “Come here, I want to rape you in the bathroom,” uttered in front of Johnson’s entire team, have been widely disseminated. As were his frequent outbursts about the “too many Jews” in Westchester and “black monkeys” and “apes” at airport customs.
When he called Johnson too “bossy,” it was almost funny. “Bossy” has by now become such a cliché in the arena of female putdowns that Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg started a whole campaign last year about banning the word.
Less-commented-on, though even more repulsive, were Martinez's sick, entitled power moves, designed to be psychologically crippling. Twice, as reported in the suit, when Johnson was eating an apple in the office, he grabbed the fruit from her hand and took a big bite, and then returned it to her. Symbolism much? She offered him his own apple, but he wouldn’t take it. He needed to mark his territory.
According to the suit, Johnson had gone through all the proper channels to report the behavior, and even suggested sensitivity training for the CEO, (and in so doing, was trying to save the agency from what she could see would be a ticking time-bomb.) Still, nothing was done.
The final straw was that JWT sent around a form for all employees to sign, agreeing that they’d never witnessed illegal activity taking place at the agency. This forced Johnson’s hand. She could not sign in good faith, and unleashed the suit.
But by the 14, when Johnson’s lawyers amended the suit with a copy of a tape of Martinez’s reportedly racist speech in Miami, WPP changed its tune and hired outside legal and PR counsel. Obviously, the case at that point came down less as “He said/she said,” than, “He said, and then endlessly repeated all of this heinous shit, so it can all easily be corroborated.” There wasn’t much for the outside firm to investigate.
“This is such a disaster!" Kat Gordon, the founder of the 3 Percent Conference, told me in a conversation we had before news of Martinez’s exit broke.
The ironies add up: Gordon, whose conference aims to raise the woefully low (now 11%) number of female creative directors in the industry, said that when she was invited to be on a JWT Panel about female creatives at the Cannes Lions Festival, Martinez was in the front row of the audience, smiling, along with JWT’s chief talent officer, Laura Agostini (whom Johnson had emailed repeatedly with her harassment complaints, to no avail).
For its 150th anniversary, JWT developed a scholarship program for deserving women in third-world countries, in the name of Helen Landsdowne Resor, the agency’s — and industry’s—first female copywriter.
“I don’t have a problem that it happened,” Gordon said. “It happens all the time in banks and law firms. What poisons the company is the lack of follow-through on stated policy for the handling of such cases.”
She also added that her company had done research among creative women last year, that showed that 23% had seen or experienced sexual harassment, and only 8% said the responsible party was punished.
The plot thickens with the announcement of Martinez' resignation. Is this merely damage control, scapegoating Martinez (an obvious outlier) when the entire culture that propped him up and allowed it to happen is still in place?
Cindy Gallop, founder/CEO of MakeLoveNotPorn, and former chairman of BBH New York, also saw this coming. She told me before the resignation that “If WPP and JWT continue down this path, where they are setting out to destroy Erin Johnson in court, they are going to destroy themselves along with her.”
Now that Martinez has left the building, Gallop told me, “WPP and JWT -- and obviously, by that I mean Martin Sorrell -- need to do something that won't come easily to them, or rather, to him. They/he need to show genuine remorse, shame, humility and self-awareness, and to be willing to learn from this, and accept help and advice to completely transform the culture and the leadership that allowed the appalling details of that lawsuit to happen.”
I also spoke to Nancy Vonk, who started her own feminist firestorm when she outed the ghastly, anti-woman ravings of industry legend Neil French 10 years ago after he spoke in Toronto. She had a slightly more hopeful outlook. She agreed that while “the system is broken in businesses of all kinds, it can absolutely be changed. Now seems like a good time for company leaders to reflect on what that will take."
The suit is still active, with JWT, WPP, and Gustavo Martinez’s attorneys still working together versus Johnson. But with Martinez’s exit, at least in the short term, the industry dodged an apocalypse. Perhaps now is the time to help the female talent become undead.